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House of Lords

Monday, 26 November 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Death of a Member

The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I regret that I have to inform the House of the death of Lord Bridge of Harwich on 20 November. On behalf of the House, I extend our condolences to his family and friends.

Police: Metropolitan Police Commissioner

2.36 pm

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Minister of State for Policing, Security and Counterterrorism meet the commissioner regularly to discuss the policing of London.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Despite the rather squalid vote in the Metropolitan Police Authority last week, does he not accept that this particular self-serving commissioner can no longer honourably stay in office? Is he not undermining an already demoralised, overstressed and hard-working Metropolitan Police force with this act of defiance? Does the Minister not agree that if a civilian, for example, had done to a police officer what the police tragically did to Jean Charles de Menezes, a long prison sentence could well have ensued? How can there be one law for the police and one law for the general public?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the death of Jean Charles de Menezes was a profoundly shocking tragedy and I know that the de Menezes family have our deepest sympathy, but the commissioner and the Metropolitan Police remain in the forefront of the fight against crime and terrorism. They have my full confidence and that of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, and our thanks for and support in the very difficult job that they do. As the noble Lord said, the Metropolitan Police Authority passed a vote of confidence in the commissioner last Thursday.

Lord Henley: My Lords, as we are discussing counterterrorism, does the noble Lord agree with the remarks quoted in today's paper of Peter Clark, the head of the Met’s counterterrorism unit, when he said:

Does the noble Lord agree with that—or did he agree with it some days ago?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, we have embarked on a period of ongoing consultation that I think is most unusual and quite extraordinary on the proposals for the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I have no doubt whatsoever, if we look at trend analysis, that there will be cases—there may well be cases in train at the moment—that may require more than 28 days. A lot of consultation is under way on exactly how to move forward, but our prime aim has to be the safety of the people of these islands. They have a human right, which is the right to live their lives fully without danger of being killed.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister believe and accept that public servants, who have no method of replying, should be constantly told how dreadfully they have behaved? Is this not happening increasingly more than it should in this House?

Lord West of Spithead: As I said, my Lords, the Metropolitan Police Authority has looked at this issue. The authorities that are set up for this sort of thing are the ones that should look at public servants. I do get worried when one finds that there is a trial by media or a trial in some other way.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, there was no trial by media; there was a trial at the Old Bailey under health and safety legislation which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner chose to contest. The jury found the Metropolitan Police guilty as an organisation for which the commissioner is responsible. How can the Minister retain confidence in the commissioner in those circumstances?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as I have already said, the Metropolitan Police Authority looked to see what the situation was, and it found the commissioner not culpable of any of those issues. I therefore believe that this should not be discussed outside the normal fora in which to do this.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the commissioner informed me that, on the last Sunday in October, all divisions of the Metropolitan Police are advised to increase their vigilance because of the increase in street crime due to the darker evenings? Therefore, will the Minister at least consider this factor when looking at police procedures in the metropolis?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am sure that the Metropolitan Police service looks at this issue in great detail. I understand that it has a large folder with which it works on this issue.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the main reason why public officials, whether civil servants or Ministers, resign when things go wrong is not necessarily because they are to blame but to give their successors greater authority to run the show well?

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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I reiterate that the commissioner and the Metropolitan Police service, with our security services, are at the forefront of our fight against terrorism, and that he still has our full confidence.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, was it appropriate for the commissioner to resist the IPCC inquiry into the Stockwell incident?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the answer is no. In response to a letter from Sir Ian Blair—I think it was dated 22 July, but I shall write to the noble Earl if that is the wrong date—the then Permanent Secretary, Sir John Gieve, made it clear that the relevant legal provisions of the Police Reform Act 2002 applied, meaning that the investigation could not be suspended and had to go ahead. That is what happened.


2.43 pm

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords—

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, my Question has been called.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, we did call the next Question. There was a palpable pause in your Lordships’ House and I think that the House is probably ready to move on.

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we condemn the activities of the PKK, as we condemn all acts of terrorism, and we regret the loss of life that recent PKK attacks have caused. We continue to work with Turkey and with the Iraqi national and Kurdish regional governments to resolve these issues diplomatically and to prevent Iraqi territory from being used as a base for attacks on Turkey.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that Turkey really deserves our sympathy and does she accept that if Turkey and Iraq can get together they might be able to defeat the PKK?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords. We certainly sympathise with regard to the attacks on Turkey. My noble friend Lord Malloch-Brown said in a debate on 23 October that he welcomed the self-restraint that Turkey had shown. We wholeheartedly agree that these things can be resolved diplomatically if the Iraqi Government, the Kurdish regional government and the Turkish Government get together.

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Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with my view, based on my visit to south-east Turkey last month, that the issue is how to engender support among Turks with a Kurdish background for dialogue and for the rejection of PKK terrorism? Does this not entail dialogue with the Democratic Society Party and is this not vital if Turkish aspirations to join the European Union are not to be derailed?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Indeed, my Lords, it is. We welcome the election of 19 largely Kurdish MPs to the Turkish parliament last month. We believe that this is a good way forward and hope that the Turkish Government will take advantage of having those elected Kurdish members in their parliament to pursue dialogue.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, when the Foreign Secretary met Mr Gul recently, did he urge him not to send troops across the frontier into northern Iraq, particularly in view of the assurances that were given at the recent conference in Istanbul by the Kurdish regional government and the Iraqi Prime Minister? Did the Foreign Secretary also say to him that if the DTP is banned as threatened—to take up the point made by the Minister—this will seriously jeopardise the negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the European Union?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, whenever we have discussions with our Turkish friends about these issues, we always advise them to find a solution to these problems diplomatically and through dialogue. On the investigation of alleged links between the DTP and the PKK and the possible shutting down of these offices, we continue to follow the situation closely. Again, we encourage the Government to pursue dialogue and not to take this sort of action.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, in the light of the Minister’s remark about the condemnation of terrorism, are the Government having any second thoughts about the decision to exclude Hamas from the search for Middle East peace?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, as the noble Lord will know better than I, these matters are being discussed at Annapolis this week. We must wait for the results of that conference. At the moment, the Government’s position has not changed. Until Hamas recognises the four principles set down by the quartet, we will not move on that.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, does my noble friend subscribe to the view that the United States or British military forces should not be drawn into a conflict between the Turkish Government and the PKK?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords. That is why we are urging our friends to solve these issues diplomatically. It is not for the UK Government to embark on such actions, but we will encourage our friends to solve these things diplomatically.

26 Nov 2007 : Column 1025

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, of course we do not want to be drawn into all sorts of problems around the world with which we cannot cope; we have enough on our hands already. The Turks have behaved with considerable restraint, which arises in part from the United States Government promising that there will be additional steps to hunt out the PKK terrorists, whom the Minister has rightly condemned, and I think that we all sympathise with Turkey’s position on that. We are in a way entangled because we are working with the United States. Does the Minister have any information on these additional steps, given that neither the Kurdistan authorities nor the Iraqi Government have been able to hunt out the terrorist camps in the Kandil mountains? At the moment, the terrorists remain free to attack Turkey whenever they want.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, as I understand it, the Iraqi Government are taking steps to prevent the PKK from going into Turkish territory or attacking the Turks. They are taking various practical actions in relation to the PKK. We are trying to encourage the Turkish Government to have negotiations with the Iraqi Government and to include the regional government of Kurdistan. To date, the Turks have been reluctant to do that, but we believe that it is important for all three partners to negotiate a solution.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, my noble friend has properly said that, in the face of very inflamed public opinion, the Turkish Government have shown remarkable constraint. Does she agree that not only should we seek to bring the Iraqi Government and the Turkish Government together, but we should be ready to help the Turkish Government in any way technically and otherwise, although not militarily, to patrol and ensure that the border is as secure as is practicable in very difficult circumstances?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I do not know what practical measures we are taking in terms of securing the border; I shall come back to my noble friend in writing on that. The fact that we advocate so strongly Turkey’s membership of the European Union and are working with our partners towards her accession will help in relation to the dialogue that Turkey is undertaking with Iraq. That is because we help to strengthen Turkey all the time by assisting in finding solutions to various problems. Turkish accession to the European Union is something that we must keep very much in mind at all times.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree, therefore, that we should give our maximum support to the initiative of Mr Ahtisaari, the European Union envoy, to reinforce the ideas for a dialogue mentioned by the President of Turkey?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords, we support the initiative being undertaken by Mr Ahtisaari and we await his report with interest.

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Railways: High-speed Trains

2.51 pm

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have no plans at present for further high-speed railway lines. A White Paper was published in July setting out the Government’s strategy for the railway and, on new lines, it states that further study is needed in conjunction with multimodal assessments of demand. The Government plan to undertake such analysis in time to inform the long-term transport plan, which is due to be published in 2012.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I take note of the Minister’s somewhat complacent Answer. In view of the fact that oil prices are rising steeply and that we will be in a period of both very high prices and shortages, and bearing in mind the long timescales required, should we not be putting in hand the planning for a high-speed line to the north in order to strengthen the country’s defences against these circumstances?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I understand entirely where the noble Lord is coming from. However, given the likelihood that, on current projected trends, over the next decade there will be an increase in the number of rail passengers of about 30 per cent, the Government have fairly taken the view, which the noble Lord has supported, that our priority should be to ensure that we tackle congestion on the railway lines and put in place measures to meet those capacity demands. I do not think that passengers would thank the Government if we failed to do that. The case is very simple. To expand in the way that the noble Lord suggests would be an extremely expensive option, one which could cost as much as £30 million—I mean £30 billion; I wish that it were £30 million—over the period he is proposing.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that this may be a useful time to look again at whether the railway system as such should not be considered as something that the state ought to control?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this question often comes up in your Lordships’ House and I am intrigued that that is increasingly the case. Again, I am not sure that this would necessarily be the best use of public funds. The Government should continue to focus on the key issue of investing in the infrastructure, to ensure that trains run on time, that there are plenty of them and that they are modern, well equipped and all of those things—which of course are the passengers’ priorities.

Lord Morris of Handsworth: My Lords, in considering the railway high-speed programme, is the Minister aware of the grave concern in some sections of the railway community about the numbers of prisoners working at night on track maintenance? The concern is really about public safety. Can he tell us what steps if

26 Nov 2007 : Column 1027

any are being taken to reassure the public on this and whether the prisoners are being paid the minimum wage?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am afraid that my brief this afternoon does not cover that question, and I apologise to my noble friend for that. I shall properly research the answer and provide him and other interested noble Lords with a full response.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, given that about 30 planes fly between London and Manchester every day, perhaps the Minister should make sure that high-speed rail is further investigated. Will he also comment on the observation of the Commission for Integrated Transport that the costs in this country are about 50 per cent higher than they are in other countries? If we looked at these costs, we might be able to build more lines.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am delighted that the Conservative Party has decided that it now rather likes the railway network; during its 18 years in government I had the distinct impression that it was not at all keen on rail. If my memory is right, that was a period in our history when there was significant underinvestment, and we have cheerfully and happily reversed that trend. Of course we keep our options open and continue to keep these issues under very careful review. I invite the noble Lord to support the Government’s programme of continued investment in the railway network as a way of dealing with many of the environmental problems and challenges facing our country.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the remarks attributed to Sir Rod Eddington in apparent opposition to a new high-speed line were solely in respect of a new high-speed line built on the maglev technology, not on the basis of a high-speed line such as the Channel Tunnel rail link? On that basis, can he confirm that if a demand for a high-speed line can be demonstrated, the Government will look favourably on it, based on existing and proven technology?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right about maglev. I would be surprised if Eddington was at all impressed by maglev as a form of investment. It is three times more expensive to build a kilometre of track using maglev technology than it is with the more traditional means. The Eddington study found that the United Kingdom has a well connected transportation network and that journey times by rail between major UK cities compare favourably with those in other European countries. Of course, if we need to reconsider our position and put a high-speed network higher up our list of priorities, we will have to do that. I am sure there will be a proven economic case should that need be demonstrated.

The Earl of Glasgow: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a high-speed line between London and Scotland would be environmentally much more preferable to an ever increasing number of flights, which, at the moment, are the only way in which most of us can get from Scotland down to here?

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